Handicapping player of the year races is always a difficult task. But in a season filled with paused programs and unequal league slates due to COVID-19 challenges, it has never been harder to identify the top candidates in each college basketball conference.
Some teams have played 15 league games. Others have played two. Seriously. Let's just say sample size was a challenge in this assessment. This season, the list of potential player of the year candidates is long and abundant with possibilities.
Remember, all of this could change in the final weeks of the season, but we think this is a good barometer of where each race is headed.
Here's the criteria we tried to emphasize:
With at least a month of data, we thought accentuating individual impact in league play made sense.
In most cases, good players on good teams are often the top candidates for these awards. So please save the tweets about our exclusion of the volume shooter from the bottom-feeder in your favorite conference.
In most cases, there were more than two top candidates for the award. But we narrowed it to two.
Some of the leagues lack an obvious front-runner and top contender, but we did our best. Also, some leagues have players who have looked great -- but only played two or three league games. That's not their fault, but it did make us hesitant to include them.
Without further ado:
Navigate to each league:
America East | American | ACC | Atlantic Sun | Big 12 | Big East | Big Sky | Big South | Big Ten | Big West | CAA | C-USA | Horizon | MAAC | MAC | MEAC | MVC | MW | NEC | OVC | Pac-12 | Patriot | SEC | SoCon | Southland | SWAC | Summit | Sun Belt | WCC | WAC
American Athletic Conference
Grimes has made one of the league's most amazing turns, going from five-star prospect at Kansas to leader of a Houston team that's trying to capture a top seed in the NCAA tournament. He has been a 38% 3-point shooter in league play and has averaged 15.8 points per game and 6.0 rebounds per game.
After coach Gregg Marshall was dismissed in November following reports that he had hit a former player and choked a coach on his staff, things didn't look good for Wichita State. But lead assistant Isaac Brown kept this group together, and Etienne (16.9 PPG, 40% clip from the 3-point line in league play) has helped his team battle Houston for the league crown.
Atlantic Coast Conference
Jones and Louisville hope to rebuild the momentum as the postseason approaches following a late-season pause that could disrupt the team's mojo. With Jones (17.2 PPG, 5.0 assists per game), however, coach Chris Mack knows he has one of the conference's best players and a trustworthy ball handler who has committed turnovers on just 13.5% of his possessions, per KenPom.
This is a Duke team that was likely headed toward a postseason conclusion without an NCAA tournament appearance long before Jalen Johnson's decision to opt out on Monday after an up-and-down season. But Hurt, who is averaging 18.2 PPG in league play, has made 44% of his 3-point attempts and 61% of his shots inside the arc in ACC action, which is an eye-popping set of numbers that can't be ignored, even as Duke struggles.
America East Conference
Due to COVID-19 restrictions, Vermont's season didn't start until Dec. 21, but the Catamounts have not wasted time rising to the top of the league, which is not unusual. Davis has averaged 18.9 PPG and made 43% of his 3-point attempts in conference play, steadying this operation for John Becker's program.
He is averaging 14.8 PPG and leading the conference in boards (8.9 RPG) as his team sits in a tie with Vermont for first place in the league. Horvath also has made 39% of his 3-point attempts for a team that might be one half of a compelling America East tournament title game.
Atlantic 10 Conference
During his team's current five-game winning streak, Hyland has averaged 23.2 PPG. He also has made 39% of his 3-point attempts in league play.
Last season, Crutcher was one of Obi Toppin's key teammates as the future New York Knick was pushing toward the Wooden Award. This season, Crutcher is averaging 19.3 PPG in league play for a Dayton squad fighting to get into the league's top tier. He also has connected on 40% of his 3-point attempts for Anthony Grant's squad, which entered the week 7-5 in Atlantic 10 play.
Atlantic Sun Conference
One of college basketball's best stories, the Knights are in first place in the Atlantic Sun as the former Division II standouts make the four-year transition to Division I hoops. Bradshaw has been vital for the program, averaging 15.4 PPG and hitting at a 38% clip from the 3 line.
They can't all be Bellarmine, but Liberty has only lost one game since Jan. 1. And Preston, a 6-foot-9 center, is nailing shots inside the arc at a 55% rate in league play.
Big East Conference
It feels like Gillespie has played on every Villanova team that's ever won a national title, but the senior is the main event for a Wildcats program that is -- surprise, surprise -- the top team in the Big East and one of the best squads in America. He is averaging 18.0 PPG and 5.4 APG in league play thus far.
Mamukelashvili (13.6 PPG, 7.2 RPG) has been one of the critical factors in Seton Hall's current three-game winning streak. He has made 50% of his attempts inside the arc and 79% of his free throw attempts in league play.
Big Sky Conference
Groves is averaging 19.3 PPG and 8.2 RPG, both top-three marks in the Big Sky, where Eastern Washington entered the week in first place at 9-2 in league play. He also is the league's leader in field goal rate (61%).
Some of Esposito's best efforts this season (see: 22 points in a double-digit loss to Cal Baptist on Friday) have not been able to lead Sacramento State into contention. But the efficient 6-foot-7 post player averaging 18.8 PPG is doing everything he can to get the program above .500 in league play by season's end.
Big South Conference
He is putting up 24.4 PPG in league play for the Pirates, an effort that has helped Hampton maintain a spot in the competitive league's top tier. Hampton has made 50% of its shots inside the arc with Warren on the floor and 37% when he is on the bench.
The Uniontown, Ohio, native has been a real boost for the Eagles, who've made 39% of their 3-point attempts with Vaudrin on the floor. He also is averaging 13.1 PPG and 7.0 RPG in league play for a Winthrop squad that could clinch the league's title this week.
Big 12 Conference
When Butler made the decision to withdraw from the NBA draft prior to the season, he changed the trajectory of Scott Drew's program, which is now one of two undefeated teams in the country. Butler has made 45% of his 3 attempts in Big 12 action, and he has proved to be one of America's top two-way players on a team that could win its first national championship this season.
He is averaging a double-double for the season -- 15.1 PPG and 10.4 RPG -- for a West Virginia squad with an opportunity to make a lot of noise in the NCAA tournament. In Saturday's 91-90 double-overtime loss to Oklahoma, Culver made 13 of 23 shots inside the arc.
Big Ten Conference
The Wooden Award front-runner's accuracy from the 3-point line -- 34% in Big Ten action -- has dipped, but that hasn't changed his dominance on the floor for the Hawkeyes. He is still averaging 22.1 PPG, and Iowa has made 53% of its shots inside the arc and 41% of its 3 attempts -- Garza drawing extra defenders every time he touches the ball helps -- when the big man is on the floor.
Dosunmu (20.3 PPG, 40% from the 3 line) might be Garza's fiercest competition for the Wooden Award and Big Ten player of the year honors. His 31-point effort in Thursday's 77-72 overtime win against Nebraska was just another incredible opportunity for Illinois, which has won five in a row, to let Dosunmu don his cape and become the superhero the team has needed him to be this campaign.
Big West Conference
If you're a UC Santa Barbara fan, you don't know what it's like to lose in 2021, because McLaughlin (16.1 PPG, 4.2 APG in league play) hasn't allowed it to happen. He also has made 39% of his 3 attempts, another component of his team's current eight-game winning streak.
Welp, a first team all-Big West performer a year ago, picked up where he left off with another stellar effort. He is averaging 15.5 PPG and connecting on 38% of his 3s in league play.
Colonial Athletic Association
Lewis has made 60% of his shots at the rim and 41% of his jump shots inside the arc, per hoop-math.com. He also is averaging 17.7 PPG and 1.8 SPG in league play for a James Madison squad that entered the week in first place in the CAA.
He is perhaps the league's most versatile threat, leading the league in steals (2.5 per game) while averaging 19.3 PPG. Four CAA squads have failed to register 60 or more points against Northeastern, the top defensive team in the conference, with Walker's effort on defense.
He put together this run in three consecutive games against Power 5 schools in nonconference play: 21 points, 14 rebounds in a win over Memphis; 15 points, eight rebounds and two blocks in a loss to West Virginia; and 13 points, 15 rebounds and five blocks in a loss to Louisville. That effectiveness has continued in league play, during which Bassey is averaging 18.2 PPG, 12.0 RPG and 2.9 blocks per game.
Kinsey is averaging 19.5 PPG, second in the league, for a Thundering Herd program that has won five of its past six contests. He also is one of the league's most efficient threats: 80% from the free throw line, 53% shooting from inside the arc and 46% from the 3 line.
It will be difficult to take the award from a guy who is averaging 24.1 PPG and connecting on 42% of his 3s in league play -- all of this while he is logging 38.1 minutes per game for his father Mike Davis' squad.
Scott Nagy's team entered the week ranked 60th in the NET rankings and 55th in KenPom. No other squad in the conference has those marks, because no other team in the conference has Love, who is averaging 17.4 PPG and connecting on 57% of his shots inside the arc in league play.
The problem with a league like this is that COVID-19 pauses have created a major gap in the number of games each team has played: Iona entered the week with six league games, while Monmouth had 14. But Hammond is averaging 16.8 PPG through 14 contests for a team that is 10-4 in league play, and that has to count for something.
Rick Pitino's squad has been hit hard by COVID-19, which has caused multiple delays. So while Ross, who is averaging 18.7 PPG and connecting on 47% of his 3-pointers through six league games, is in the mix for player of the year, we just haven't seen enough to fully judge him yet.
One of America's pound-for-pound standouts, the 5-foot-8 guard from Chicago has scored 30 points or more in four league games thus far. The senior, who is averaging 20.8 PPG in league action, is the anchor of a program that entered the week as the winner of eight of its past nine games.
The league's leader in scoring (21.8 PPG) is also averaging 10.0 RPG and 1.4 BPG for a Kent State team that's still a true contender in the MAC title race. You might remember Pippen as the player who put up 13 points in his team's overtime loss to Virginia in December.
He is 11th in the nation in percentage of minutes played on KenPom. But the high-usage responsibilities have not slowed the 6-foot-4 junior from Pensacola, Florida, who is averaging 14.8 PPG, 8.6 RPG, 6.0 APG and 2.2 SPG in league play.
Harris, a former ESPN top-100 prospect, made stops at Missouri and NC State, before transferring to North Carolina A&T last year. After sitting out last season, he has helped Will Jones' squad win its first four games in MEAC play, averaging 14.0 PPG.
Missouri Valley Conference
Three years after helping his team make a miraculous run to the Final Four in 2018, Krutwig is now a legitimate candidate for All-American honors after averaging 15.0 PPG, 6.6 RPG, 3.0 APG, 1.0 BPG and 1.0 SPG thus far. He also is a key player for No. 22 Loyola Chicago on defense, where the team is currently first in adjusted efficiency on KenPom.
While the basketball world's focus centered on the collision course of Drake and Loyola Chicago, which split their series over the weekend, Prim has turned Missouri State -- winners of five in a row -- into a top-tier squad that could pull off an upset in the Missouri Valley Conference tournament. He is averaging 15.0 PPG (60% clip inside the arc) and 9.2 RPG in league play.
Mountain West Conference
The 7-footer battled injuries throughout last season, but his availability this campaign helped Craig Smith's group win its first nine games in Mountain West action. Queta is a two-way force who is averaging 12.4 PPG, 9.4 RPG, 3.0 APG and 3.8 BPG in conference play for the top team in the league.
The sophomore point guard on Steve Alford's squad is averaging 20.5 PPG during the four-game winning streak the team had put together entering this week. He also has made 43% of his 3-point attempts during that rally for a Nevada team that's now in the hunt for the Mountain West championship.
The junior guard, who recently secured his third NEC player of the week honor, has made 41% of his 3s and 86% of his free throws in league play. He also has connected on 57% of his assisted spot-up attempts, per Synergy Sports data.
Morales has scored 20 points or more in five NEC matchups thus far. He also is averaging 18.7 PPG and connecting on 50% of his attempts inside the arc in league play.
Ohio Valley Conference
The conference's leader in scoring (22.2 PPG) and rebounding (11.2 RPG) also is the reason Austin Peay should be a trendy pick to win the OVC tournament next month. With Taylor's post presence, this is a team with a pair of recent one-point losses that could have shifted the league standings. (Austin Peay entered the week in fifth place.)
He is the leader of a Belmont squad that has won 19 consecutive games. Casey Alexander's squad had made 62% of its shots inside the arc and 38% of its 3 attempts with Muszynski on the floor this season, per hooplens.com.
Mobley has justified all of the NBA buzz -- he is listed as the projected No. 2 pick in ESPN.com's latest mock draft -- with an incredible performance that doesn't just stand out among freshmen. He is the best player on the best team in the Pac-12, as evidenced by his 60% clip inside the arc in league play thus far. As the race for the Pac-12 crown has intensified, Mobley (16.6 PPG, 9.0 RPG and 3.1 BPG) has just elevated his effort and execution.
The 6-foot-9 star from Munich, Germany, has made a remarkable 69% of his shots at the rim this season, per hoop-math.com. And Stanford has made 55% of its shots inside the arc with da Silva (19.2 PPG, 6.9 RPG, 2.3 APG, 1.1 BPG) on the floor.
The guard from San Antonio is averaging 17.5 PPG, 5.3 APG, 1.7 SPG for Colgate, the No. 1 team in offensive and defensive efficiency in the Patriot League, per KenPom. He also has made 40% of his 3s and 88% of his free throws in league play for the top team in the conference entering the week.
Jaworski leads the conference with 21.8 PPG and also is averaging 1.7 SPG in league play. Lafayette has made 51% of its shots inside the arc with Jaworski on the floor and 42% of those same attempts without him.
We watched Thomas (22.6 PPG) demonstrate his significance to Will Wade's NCAA tournament aspirations over the past two games, as the guard averaged 25.0 PPG (10-for-17 inside the arc) in back-to-back wins over Mississippi State and Tennessee, both by double-digit margins. He has scored 17 points or more in nine consecutive games for an LSU squad that entered the week as a No. 8 seed in Joe Lunardi's Bracketology.
Mann has been a critical player for a program that had to weather the absence of Keyontae Johnson, who recently announced he would not return after collapsing during a matchup against rival Florida State in December. Prior to the team's Dec. 3 pause, it had won four of its previous five games as Mann (14.5 PPG, 5.3 RPG, 3.8 APG, 1.5 SPG), who has made 38% of his 3-pointers in league play, blossomed and helped Florida maintain its postseason hopes during a difficult season for Mike White's program.
Miller, a senior and the reigning Southern Conference player of the year and defensive player of the year, has maintained his dominance. He entered the week in the top 10 in scoring (18.3 PPG), rebounding (7.2 RPG) and assists (3.4 APG) for the top team in the conference. The two-way threat also is leading the conference in steals (2.6 SPG).
You wouldn't be surprised if coach Jay McAuley told you Murphy was driving the team's bus to away games, because Murphy seems to be doing everything for the squad. He is averaging 17.7 PPG (39% from beyond the arc in league play) and 4.1 APG, while leading the conference with an 88.1% clip from the charity stripe.
Kensmil, who is averaging 16.4 PPG and 7.7 RPG in league action, has played a significant role in his team's 10-1 rally over its past 11 games. He has three double-doubles in conference play as the catalyst for a Stephen F. Austin squad that has made 60% of its shots inside the arc in league play.
Other players in this league have bigger numbers, but few have matched the impact Kohl (13.8 PPG, 4.5 RPG, 1.4 BPG in league play) has had for Abilene Christian (No. 30 in adjusted defensive efficiency on KenPom), which entered the week in a first-place tie with Sam Houston State. ACU has amassed 1.10 points per possession (as compared to 0.89) and held opponents to a 43.2% shooting clip with Kohl on the floor this season.
The 6-foot-1 sophomore from Rockwall, Texas, has already scored 30, 42, 34 and 37 in league games this season in one of the most explosive efforts by any player in the country. Abmas is averaging 25.5 PPG in conference play. The nation's No. 2 overall scorer in the country, behind Luka Garza, Abmas (23.2 PPG) also has connected on 44% of his 3s and 90% of his free throws in Summit League action.
Although his teammate Douglas Wilson was the league's preseason player of the year, Scheierman has emerged as the most pivotal player for a South Dakota State squad in third place in the league's standings entering the week. Scheierman is averaging 15.3 PPG and connecting on 39% of his 3s in conference action, while also leading the league in rebounding (10.8 per game) and assists (5.0 per game).
Sun Belt Conference
A Western Michigan transfer and the top scorer in league play at 21.5 PPG, Flowers helped Richie Riley's squad ascend to second place with a six-game win streak. Flowers has used his shooting prowess (39% from beyond the arc in conference play) to put together 10 efforts overall this season with 25 points or more.
The 6-foot-1 guard has made Coastal Carolina -- playing at the highest pace in league play, per KenPom -- a potent operation in transition, where he has scored on 67% of his assisted field goal attempts and committed turnovers on just 10% of those possessions, according to Synergy Sports data. In league play, he is second in scoring (18.7 PPG), seventh in boards (7.0 RPG), sixth in field goal rate (45.2%) and fourth in free throw rate (90%).
While COVID-19 complications had limited his team to just six league games entering the week (some SWAC teams had played as many as 12), Jarrett has lived up to the hype attached to his name when he was picked as the league's preseason player of the year. He is averaging 22.2 PPG in league action while making 50% of his shots inside the arc for an undefeated Jackson State squad that sits first in the league's standings.
The top player on the league's other undefeated squad entering the week also is leading the conference in assists (9.2 per game) and assist-to-turnover ratio (3.4 to 1). Plus, Mack -- a transfer from Nebraska who is fifth in the league at 14.2 PPG -- is a crucial defender for a squad that has held its opponents to 95 points per 100 possessions with him on the floor this season, according to hooplens.com.
Although his team amassed a 2-3 record through its first five conference games, Trammell -- the WAC's leading scorer -- has averaged 24.8 PPG, while connecting on 50% of his shots from beyond the arc and 79% of his free throws in league play thus far. Plus, Seattle has made 52.4% of its shots inside the arc with Trammell on the floor, per hooplens.com, and 40.7% of those same tries without him.
Entering the week, the 7-footer from Denmark was averaging 14.8 PPG, 9.7 RPG and 1.2 BPG as the anchor of a Grand Canyon squad that hasn't lost since Dec. 22. With Midtgaard in the paint, Grand Canyon has made 56.3% of its shots inside the arc in league play, while its conference opponents have connected on just 44.7% of their attempts, per KenPom.
West Coast Conference
A key member of a Gonzaga team with three players who could secure All-America honors, Timme's production has shifted into another gear since the start of conference play, which triggered averages of 19.4 PPG, 7.5 RPG and 1.1 BPG through the team's first 11 WCC games while also leading the conference with a 67% clip from the field. He also has scored 20 points or more in seven of his team's past nine games.
Top competition: Corey Kispert, Gonzaga Bulldogs
You could slide Jalen Suggs, the freshman savant and future lottery pick, in either spot in this race, but Kispert has been the king of consistency for Gonzaga, evidenced by his 44% clip from the 3-point line in league play. The No. 1 team in America has made 66% of its shots inside the arc this season and 39% of its 3-point attempts with Kispert on the floor.